Pie birds help steam escape from your pies
When I saw the tray of ceramic birds, I thought they were those cute little items you stick into a potted plant to water it as the soil dries out. These were much too lovely and delicate for grimy soil, but I had no idea what they were.
“They’re pie birds,” an auction-goer said when I questioned the young staffer who had taken them from the glass case for me to see. “You put them in a pie to vent the steam.”
I had never heard of such. I don’t recall my grandmother ever using them. In fact, I don’t remember her making pies too often, except for blackberry pies from freshly picked berries on prickly branches that we fought the wasps to get to. She was more a cake-making woman, just as my mother.
There was tray after tray of pie birds at the auction – part of a collection of sprinkle bottles, salt and pepper shakers, and black memorabilia that had been sold weeks before. Most of the pie birds were ceramic hollow animals: mostly birds, including blackbirds; ducks, bluebirds and roosters. The most amusing were three chefs. Each had an opening at the bottom – some narrow and pointed like a funnel, others wide and open like a petticoat skirt – that allowed the steam to rise and escape through openings in their mouths.
They all looked as if they were heartily singing. I can imagine what they looked like when the steam came pouring out.
“Make a pie,” the man said jokingly, “and invite me over.”
I’m not a pie-baker but I do love unfamiliar items that stump me. And these pie birds had certainly sparked my interest.
They were used to vent the steam so the filling would not escape along the sides of the pie. The bottom crust was placed in the pie pan, the bird was placed in the middle, and the filling – either meat or fruit – was spooned around it. A second crust was laid on top of the filling and around the bird, its upper body peeking out. The bird could be removed when the first slice of pie was cut. Here’s what it looked like after baking.
Today, bakers just cut slits in their pies to vent.
The British were using them in the late 1800s, but those apparently were very utilitarian-looking and not fancy. Pie birds did not get their name – and their myriad shapes – until the 1930s.
They are known by several names: pie vent, pie whistle, pie funnel and pie chimney.
The earliest were used as advertising tools by companies, much like many of the items I come across at auction from time to time – useful items aimed at “the lady of the house.” Some also contained instructions on how to use the tool.
During the 20th century, some of the major dinnerware brands made them, and more were mass-produced. Blackbirds have been the most popular, along with roosters, cows and caricatures of African American chefs (I also found a female cook, a choir boy and more). During the 1960s and 1970s, pie birds lost favor, but now they seem to be coming alive again as collectors’ items or as functional vents that can be had for as little as $5. You can find them on eBay in a range of prices. Among the highest was a like-new Donald Duck that sold for more than $300.
That’s about what they went for individually at the auction. Here are more of the pie birds: